Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Are E-Book Readers a Transitional Medium?

CAUTION: boring tech post ahead! I'm getting ready to review some small press books AND John Dufresne's book on writing a book in six months. Is it possible? Stay tuned!

The other day I was reading a blog -- somewhere -- in which a commenter prophesied that one day we would all have little e-readers in our pockets, like pocket calculators. It would be that normal.

Hm. I always had the idea that e-readers and phones/tablet computers would kind of merge. What's the point of having a dedicated technology for reading books, when you can have a thing that will let you read books AND do a ton of other things? Seems to me that the e-reader is a transitional technology, one that helps people give up paper books before doing all their reading on a regular screen. How necessary is the whole "e-ink" thing? Most people who seem really excited about the Kindle and other e-readers are, well, old: my age and the next generation up, the Boomers.

But what do you think? Will we all have cheap little dedicated e-readers in our pockets stocked with entire libraries of books? Or will that whole model fall aside, and we'll be reading on our phones, as well as ordering food, checking our glucose, and whatever?

(Apparently contrary to a lot of arguments I hear lately, I think the medium is important. Would the novel be what it is -- chapters, 300ish pages, with paragraphs, etc -- if the technology of the bound book weren't holding it together? I'm no so sure.)

Picture is of the MailStation, an e-mail-only device I used for about 6 months many years ago. It seemed like a good idea at the time.


jon said...

My guess is we won't be reading on devices, but on a different material altogether, something like paper with an electronic display.Will it all be on one thing? Why? Talking on the phone involves a different part of the body.
By now anyway we were all supposed to have jetpacks and videophones.

Anonymous said...

We kind of do have videophones now...I've had my iPhone for six months, though, and have never used Facetime...mostly because who the hell wants to have to look decent to talk on the phone?

Rhian and I had a conversation about this topic yesterday, but a couple things that I find interesting didn't make it into her post. One is the idea that reading is AN AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE. That is, though we are not necessarily wedded to the paper book, we ARE wedded to the idea that reading must be aesthetically satisfying IN SOME WAY. I've read maybe ten books on the newest Kindle and three or four on the iPad, and both are OK. But the iPad's screen resolution is really inadequate and it sucks in the sunshine...and the Kindle feels like, as Rhian put it to me yesterday, an elaborate solar calculator. These are certainly adequate reading technologies, but they aren't adequate aesthetic experiences, not yet anyway.

The other thing is that, surprisingly, very few of my students whom I polled had ever read a book on the Kindle. They seem to be more wedded to the paper book than my own peers are. So maybe they are waiting for the right tech...or maybe they're rejecting it entirely. Probably the former.

rmellis said...

Here's a theory: the Kindle looks old ON PURPORSE to appeal to old ladies such as myself. If it looked all slick and iPoddy, would your mom even touch it?

it kind of looks like one of those grocery counters my mom had, or a sweater machine. Lady tech!

Ginger said...

"...because who the hell wants to have to look decent to talk on the phone?"

Do you remember the piece in Infinite Jest with the videophone masks and the eventual demise of the whole technology for just the reason stated above?

So many of the people I know, including my teenage daughter and nephews but also some adults, don't even want to put the energy into conversing anymore. The only way to get in touch with them (pun intended, I suppose) is by texting. Tedious for me, as I still haven't upgraded to a full keyboard phone.

gvNL said...

I was thinking about this just last night while reading DFW's Oblivion lying on the couch. It struck me then, that I didn't want the object I had in hand to be a device on which I could read a trillion different texts including papers, emails, etc., what have you, I wanted the object I had in hand to be solely and uniquely connected to what I was reading. In this case I wanted this object to be DFW's Oblivion. And it was just that. And only a book gives you this, because it's the perfect unison of form and content.

Realizing this somehow comforted me. Partly, it's an aesthetic experience, but it's also more than that.

Lisa R. said...

Tech posts + indie rock + literary stuff = Good blog.

Sung said...

When the Kindle came out, I thought that it was without question a transition device. I'm not so sure I think that way anymore. What I'm hearing and seeing is that people do want the e-reader to be separate from their laptop/tablet because those devices have too many distractions. So the e-reader is a limited device by design, and the e-reader will continue to exist.

My guess is that this might continue this way for quite some time. If kids end up reading Kindles in school, the last thing a teacher needs is for them to have access to the web in class. I know the Kindle currently has basic web access, but the in-school versions probably won't.

- Sung

Anonymous said...

Web access on a kindle is a joke! It doesn't even have a clock on it...

rmellis said...

That's interesting! The idea of getting LESS is actually a selling point. I had not thought of that. But I deliberately do not have a web connection on my writing computer.

Jason T. Lewis said...

OK, I'm coming into the conversation late, but I have some thoughts. I recently went from reading on the iPad (agreed, the resolution is insufficient for extended reading) to a 3rd gen Kindle. I have to say I like the Kindle a lot, especially since they've added real page numbers. I'm just finishing a 4 week class where I taught one novel per week and I did all the reading on the Kindle and it was fantastic. The ability to take notes and access them quickly was pretty key. It's not the best device for teaching (yes, a book is still better), but I like the slimness and portability. Very nice to have one device that ways a few ounces to carry to class instead of several books.

I think Sung is right, the current batch of ereaders aren't really transitional devices. The technology itself may transition (color eink, etc.), but there's a place for a single-purpose device where you ingest and collect your reading materials. There's something to be said for not being able to access email and the web on this device. I've only used the internet on it once (but there is a clock on it).

Here's something I like about the Kindle as well. I have several books on there that I'm reading all at the same time. If I feel like one, I open it and read. If I feel like closing that and reading, I do that. I'm reading a lot more right now, which make me happy.

As for the aesthetic experience of reading, I agree that the Kindle et al are not as aesthetically pleasing as a book, but the other side of that argument is that the real experience of reading lies in the words and the partnership between the reader and the writer in creating the experience. On that front, the delivery method is secondary, right?

I don't know if anyone follows Nathan Bransford, but he has a blog post about bookstores that tracks with this topic.

Unknown said...

Well,I think the fact that the kindle is not backlit makes it different from other devices. You do not experience eye strain as you do with backlit screens. An Ipad does merge it all, but it's backlit so no good to read on.